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Building (and Keeping) an Engaged Employee Team

By Dennis O. Borst, President and COO, Patriot Marketing Group

It’s a simple formula: Hire and retain top-flight talent, then put those people together into a winning team. Sounds easy, right? Well, any manager or HR exec with more than a couple of years of experience will tell you it isn’t.

It’s not just that recruiting and retention require constant attention – we all know that. The real key to long-term success is something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: engagement. The thing is, few companies use engagement as a team-building strategy. They may have engagement programs in place for customer service personnel, mid-level management – even customers. But as a team-building strategy? Probably not.

So how do you create an engaged team that can drive your company to revenue goals and ROI levels higher than you previously thought possible? First of all, implementation of an Employee Engagement strategy must be viewed as an investment by your company, not an expense. If top-level management has the attitude that “We already pay them to do their jobs, isn’t that enough?” therein lies your fight. These are the kind of old-school executives who aren’t taking advantage of the current economic environment to put in place programs that will enlighten, enthuse and elevate their employees’ performance, instead of saying “They should be thankful they even have a job in this economy.”

These dinosaurs need to wake up and realize that their people are their most important product, and not the widgets they’re trying to sell. And if they don’t, those people won’t be sticking around for long.

Changing Expectations

With each new generation entering the workforce comes a new set of expectations. Gone are the days of the Baby Boomer attitude of “What can I do to get ahead at my company?” Now the mantra is “What can you do for me?” The Baby Boomer generation followed the example of their Depression-era parents who brought a sense of pride and loyalty to the job. But generations that followed saw their parents fall victim to downsizing, reorganization and job loss after many years of dedicated service to their company. Hence, those follow-up generations began job-hopping every couple of years, purely for the money, without ever engaging themselves at work. This generation is looking for jobs, not careers.

In response, companies began implementing Suggestion Programs, Length-of-Service Programs, Sales Incentives and Recognition Programs. And guess what? The programs worked. However, in spite of the positive reporting on the success of these programs via white papers, university and industry research, only a quarter of American companies have such programs in place. Why? It’s the old-school thinking again, that “We pay them and that should be enough.” I remember my early days as a mid-level manager at a major pharmaceutical company. The philosophy was that the company owed me nothing more than “a day’s pay for a day’s work.” In return, I owed them a day’s work for a day’s pay. End of story. The frightening thing is that this type of thinking still seems to exist in three-quarters of American companies!

Eagle or Oyster?

We now know, based on research from the Incentive Federation, that those programs discussed above worked – but only for the short term. It wasn’t enough to have these programs in place, as long as employees thought management still viewed them as badge number or line item, and not people.

It all boils down to this: Are you, as a manager, an Eagle or an Oyster? Are you willing to take the attitude that there remain opportunities out there that can be financially advantageous? Are you going out and get them like an Eagle, or are you going to sit there and hope they come to you like the Oyster? From this point forward I will only be addressing you Eagles, the Oysters can sit back and wait for someone to bring them lunch.

Going After ‘Free Agents’

This doesn’t need to be an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Remember that we began this discussion by talking about engaging your current team members. You can put into place a solid recruiting/referral program at your company, using employee referrals to seek the talent you’re looking to build around. Use the analogy of signing “free agents” in the sports world. There exists out there a solid base of top performers looking to find a new and improved work environment. Your top people probably know most of them. After all, they’re the competition, and any good employee knows who their competition is. It’s just a matter of getting them to sign on as a new team member with your company. But first you have to make yourself an attractive target.

Creating a New Environment

Before we get to the specifics, let’s assume that you’re already committed to creating an empowered and engaged employee environment at your company. If not, the remainder of what I’m about to say will fall into the pit along with the old-school dinosaurs and their widgets.

If your employees are going to assist you in signing an upgraded level of “free agents,” they must be convinced that your company is strategically friendly to its people – in other words, they have to be engaged. They have to be enthusiastic proponents of your product, service and corporate philosophy.

The things that these “free agents” will be looking for are the very same things that engaged employees cite as their key motivating factors:

  • Employees at your company work on a “level playing field”
  • Your company takes a real, honest interest in what employees think
  • There is a clear path of advancement for employees
  • Your company recognizes employee and/or team performance
  • Your company provides employees with all the tools they need to assist in meeting your goals and expectations
  • Your company take steps to utilize employees, across all disciplines, to improve processes
  • Your company offers value-added employee benefits that create a positive environment and sense of team
  • Your company strives to engage its customers
  • Your company has a major presence in the community, working towards creating a better place to live for your employees
  • Your company has involvement programs in place that contribute to an employee’s health and well-being
  • You involve employees in the process of creating and maintaining a safe work environment

Are We There Yet?

You receive a passing grade for Eagle if – and only if – your company follows all of these practices. Unless your current employees have the sense of engagement that these tenets create, you might be able to attract “free agent” talent to your company through promises of money, title and benefits, but you won’t keep them for long once they find out they’re working for dinosaurs.

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